Published March 21. 2013 6:00PM Updated March 22. 2013 4:21PM
Norwich — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy elicited a standing ovation at the start of Thursday's forum at City Hall when he honored Norwich Police Officer Jonathan Ley, who was wounded by an armed gunman during a standoff Jan. 7 on Cedar Street.
After that introduction, the audience reserved its applause for comments objecting to Malloy's proposed gun control measures in the wake of the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Objections to gun- and ammunition-control measures dominated the forum, with some questions on health care funding and substance abuse programs posed by officials in those fields and a few others on taxes and jobs from members of the public.
Paul Nelson of Oakdale led off by asking Malloy why he would seek to punish lawful gun owners and sportsmen for the acts of a few murderers. Others echoed his fear that stringent gun control could lead to the government taking guns away from law-abiding citizens.
In response, Malloy showed mild frustration, saying it was difficult to respond to comments that the state plans to confiscate people's guns, and repeatedly said that was not true.
"Not yet," someone in the audience muttered.
Jeremy Newman, a member of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, said he bought AR-15 rifles before the Newtown tragedy and plans to teach his three young children how to shoot and "use weapons responsibly." He asked Malloy why the framers of the Constitution put the protection for gun ownership in the Bill of Rights and said banning high-powered guns would "give the government a monopoly of force over the citizens."
Malloy repeatedly said he supported the right to bear arms but said some gun regulation was necessary.
He cited existing and past laws that restricted certain types of weapons. Some, such as the decades-old ban on machine guns, never have been successfully challenged in court, he said. Malloy said the nation had a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines until 2004.
The state has a ban on some assault-style weapons, Malloy said, but there's a loophole "you can drive a truck through." Nancy Lanza, mother of Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, was able to purchase the AR-15 rifle her son used because it was a different brand and with different features than the banned weapons.
Malloy said he favors universal background checks for gun purchasers as well as limits on the size of ammunition magazines.
"I just want the same level of scrutiny, at least the level of scrutiny I have to go through when I get on a plane," he said.
Waterford High School senior Emily Stuchell told the governor that she has been skeet shooting since she was 11 years old and hopes to pursue the sport in college. Her two younger siblings also enjoy the sport, and a proposed tax on ammunition would affect her family directly, she said.
Malloy responded that he opposes any plan to tax ammunition.
Stuchell asked the governor to concentrate on mental health problems as the prime issue rather than gun control. She received loud applause in response to her comments.
Malloy said it's a myth that Connecticut does not focus on mental health issues, saying state medical insurance plans offer mental health coverage unmatched in any other state. He assured the audience that the issue would not be ignored.
Mayor Peter Nystrom introduced the governor at the start of the session with a dozen or more Norwich police officers standing across the front of Council Chambers awaiting the presentation to Ley. Nystrom asked the packed house — the chamber accommodated 140 people, with overflow attendance in a nearby room equipped with a TV — to be respectful of the governor.
A few audience members carried small signs, such as "NRA Stand and Fight," but the forum remained orderly.
Outside City Hall, protesters stood around the building and rang bells loudly throughout the hour-long public forum. Passing motorists occasionally honked in response.
Earlier in the evening, people started lining up 90 minutes before the meeting start time. Some carried larger signs and criticized Malloy for attacking both their First Amendment and Second Amendment rights.
"Stop attacking lawful citizens and our guns," one side of a sign held by Jen Ezzell said. "No gun regulation. Secure our schools."
Ezzell, of Lisbon, said Malloy owes an apology to everyone who demonstrated last week against Malloy's proposed gun control measures. Last week in New London, Malloy referred to the Hartford demonstrators as "the fringe of the fringe."